Come September and there’s a spurt of celebrations, celebrations of birthdays of a few legendary figures of the Indian Cinema. This is an homage to some of them. Though each deserves a separate piece, ignoring any one of them would be turpitude.
The month starts with Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar on September 3. Known as an actor who didn’t need glycerin, Uttam Kumar was the heartthrob of every Bengali woman of the 1960s and ’70s. His high-voltage smile on the screen was enough to make more than a few scream in theatres. He might not have been a success in Hindi, but he was the apple of every Bengali eye. Nearly every Kolkata citizen was on streets the day he died in 1980 to be a part of his funeral procession. Women cried while beating their head and chest like had lost a lover.
The month ends with another Bengali — Hrishikesh Mukherjee on September 30. For someone who started as an assistant editor to Bimal Roy, direction was not a dream. He was almost forced to be a director by Dilip Kumar who saw the potential in him. Dilip Saab acted in Hrishida’s first film Musafir on a pro bono basis as well. Hrishida went on to become one of the most successful directors of heart warming and simple films. His Anand is a classic today. He created Aashirwaad on a whim when Ashok Kumar said that wish he was younger to play a lead in a Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. This was the creative genius in him.
September is also the birthday month of two nightingales — Asha Bhosle (September 8) and Lata Mangeshkar (September 28). Asha Bhosle was always the rebel of the Mangeshkar family. With her multi-faceted persona and voice, she carved herself a niche in the competitive world of playback singing in Hindi cinema. She did sound like Geeta Dutt in her initial films like Sujata or Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, but quickly managed to rise above the comparison. Though known for her cabaret numbers, she has also sung a bhajan like Tora man darpan kehlaye or ghazals with Ghulam Ali with equal aplomb and ease. Her Marathi Bhavgeets (songs of emotion) are steeped in honey and emotions. Her rendition of her father’s Suhasya tujhe (original and the adaptation Mi maj harpoon basle) is awe-inspiring. She had once said that getting the nuances right — music and words — is always her goal. Her USP always has been her grit and adaptability. She proved it again by performing at a huge concert to celebrate her 90 years on the planet.
Lata Mangeshkar was the eldest of the five siblings and had to start work at a very early age to provide for the family after her father’s death. She started as a child actor in a Marathi film, and later started singing first for Marathi films as well. Her talent took her to the pinnacle where nobody has, yet, reached in playback singing. Her swar was very pure. There’s an anecdote about that… One veteran Marathi music director Shrinivas Khale was questioned by an upcoming singer about why he gave all his songs to Lata and not to her. She requested him to listen to her rendition of one song. He agreed. She asked for harmonium so that she could modulate her voice to the swar she wanted to sing in. “Haach pharak aahe… tumhala peti shivay swar lavtaa yet naahi, Latachya swaravar tambora lavta yeto!” (This is the difference — one can tune the tanpura to Lata’s swar, whereas you can’t find your note without help!)
The first star bestowed with the term ‘Evergreen’ — Dev Anand would have been 100 this September 26. The second brother of three, he never really had to work to be different; he was different from his elder brother in more than one way. His energy was high and infectious even at a ripe age. I still remember him taking two steps at a time during a climb to the third floor of Sunny Sound Studio at the age of 77, when I was struggling with my breath after the second floor despite my slow speed. He was candid enough to admit that his films, after Lootmaar, didn’t do well despite his attempts at being relevant. But, according to him, he would die of depression if he didn’t keep making films and that was the reason he kept making them — with a new subject every time. He also admitted that an integral part of his success were music and his directors, but he often lamented that the process of making music had changed drastically. “We made one song in five days, today they make five songs in one day,” he had once said. One, however, must give it to him that in times when people feared tackling controversial topics and scenes, he fearlessly made films with both. And this was despite none of them doing well. “I want to take these topics to public to make them think,” he commented. Doing things differently was his trademark since his early days. He was only one of his generation to do lead roles with negative shades when his peers chose safer zones. Baazi and Jaal are examples. Had he lived longer, one would have probably seen a sequel to his musical superhit Hare Rama Hare Krishna.
Yash Chopra, born on September 27 has a memorial in Switzerland as a tribute to his contribution to tourism. He was the first to introduce the Dutch tulip gardens to the Indian film audience and make Swiss alps a regular feature in his films. Chopra has many more firsts to his credit. He was one director who switched gears from action to romance effortlessly. Responsible for the first multi-starrer hit of Bollywood with the lost-and-found formula, Waqt, he directed Deewar (action) and Kabhi Kabhie (romance) almost at the same time. He came up with a songless thriller Ittefaq in a record 37 days when his heroine for Aadmi Aur Insaan (romance, family drama) fell sick and couldn’t report for shooting. He went on with his tryst with varied genres till his last film Jab Tak Hai Jaan.
Producer of Sholay GP Sippy was born on September 14. His production values and varied topics since the ’60s were something that his peers tried to match. Along with Sholay, he also gave us classics like Patthar Ke Phool and Bramhachari, films that are watched even today for histrionics and music.
I might have missed some legends in my aggrandisement of the mentioned legends… my apologies if I have. But I would like to mention one man from the current stars who is a probable candidate to become a legend in coming years. Akshay Kumar, born on September 9, has done varied genres and if he keeps up the quality of his work, someone will write about him as an illustrious actor 20 years down the line. Well, Chunky Panday, born on September 26, might also feature, for different reasons though!
Shruti Pandit is Consulting Editor, Features, The Free Press Journal